50 for the Future – Marine Protected Areas

Our recent publication, 50 for the Future, lists 50 things that we believe should happen in Scotland over the next 50 years to benefit both people and wildlife. In this week's 50 for the Future article, Living Seas Manager for the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Alex Kinninmonth, explains why well-managed marine protected areas are essential to the future health of our seas.


Number 31: Continue to develop an effective network of Marine Protected Areas to provide a safe haven for our most important marine wildlife whilst improving the health and productivity of Scotland’s seas.


“It is unlikely that there remain any ‘pristine’ (i.e. completely natural and free from human influence) ecosystems on the Scottish continental shelf, and even the deep waters beyond the shelf edge are now subject to significant human impacts.” Hughes & Nickell, 2009

A sobering statement isn’t it? But one that shouldn’t be all that surprising if you consider Scotland’s long history of harvesting the natural wealth of our seas to meet the needs and desires of human society.

While it’s true that Scotland’s seas today contain an amazing diversity of wildlife, from microscopic flora and fauna to reef building shellfish and humpback whales, the evidence suggests they are a shadow of the rich and diverse waters of the past. The cacophony of calls in the seabird cities of Orkney and St Kilda is becoming quieter, a clear indication that all is not well in the waters below.  

Yet looking to the next 50 years there is cause for optimism. Our strong maritime heritage carries on in a different guise with Scottish institutes at the forefront of marine science, technology and policy; developing world leading knowledge that improves our ability to manage human activity at sea in an environmentally sustainable way and taking the steps needed to restore the health of oceans.  

Interest in the marine environment has never been higher, making it increasingly difficult to apply the phrase “out of sight out of mind” with regard to the wildlife beneath the waves; though perhaps we will never reach a time where the plight of the roundnose grenadier is as high on the agenda as the red squirrel.  But governments can no longer ignore the very real threats to our well-being posed by biodiversity loss and at long last countries around the globe are bucking the trend of depletion in the seas by taking legislative actions to safeguard nature and ensure its recovery.

Roundnose grenadier
A roundnose grenadier (Corypahenoides rupestris) at 1300m at Rosemary Bank. These are found in the deep offshore waters of Scotland and are one of the main target species of deepwater fisheries in the Northeast Atlantic. Populations have suffered from over-exploitation and it is classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. © Marine Scotland

Be in no doubt that achieving the recovery of our seas is a mammoth and highly complicated mission, but one of the most significant steps any government can take for marine biodiversity is to recognise areas of the sea where human activity is managed specifically for nature. Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) can be described as the cornerstones of international efforts to conserve marine biodiversity. They are a tried and tested method to ensure that the best examples of important species, habitats and ecological processes are maintained and can be the catalyst for environmental recovery beyond their boundaries.

Scotland is steadily making its journey to creating a well-managed network of Marine Protected Areas. A suite of sites protecting a variety of species and habitats that have a stronghold in Scotland now covers over 20% of Scotland’s vast marine area. Additional sites are on the cards offering much needed protection for places that whales, dolphins, porpoises, basking sharks and a range of seabirds rely on, and significant progress is being made in waters around the rest of the UK. Collectively, the sites will combine to form a network offering conservation value greater than the sum of its parts, and make a contribution to the UN Sustainable Development Goal of conserving at least 10% of global coastal and marine areas by 2020.

30 MPAs to protect species, habitats and geology of national importance were designated in 2014. These combine with existing international and coastal national sites to create a developing network of MPAs. 

The protection of species and habitats is important not just from a general biodiversity point of view, but can offer many more benefits. For example, take one of Scotland’s most important habitat forming species – maerl. A very slow-growing coral-like red algae, maerl forms purple-pink carpets on the seabed. Beds of maerl create a complexity to the seabed that wouldn’t otherwise be there and that is all too easily damaged by human activity. Maerl beds provide the ideal living space for a multitude of marine plants and animals, including the juvenile stages of scallops – one of Scotland’s most important commercial shellfish. Maerl is extremely slowing growing (1mm/yr) and has a calcium carbonate skeleton creating a long term deposit for carbon, naturally locking it away for centuries. 

king scallop on maerl bed
A king scallop (Pecten maximus) on a maerl bed. © Paul Naylor

Yet despite the international commitments and the broad body of evidence that exists today on the benefits of protected areas, the very idea of their creation is never far from lively debate.There will be an ongoing need to demonstrate the socio-economic benefits alongside the biodiversity improvements, and also a need for continual review and adaptation to ensure that the aims are being met. Of primary importance is the need to overcome the significant financial burden that comes with gathering evidence through surveying and monitoring the marine environment. We will certainly need a spirit of optimism and cooperation from a wide section of society to ensure that MPAs reach their full potential into the middle of this century. 

Let us know your thoughts by emailing thefuture@scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk or Tweet @ScotWildlife using #50fortheFuture.

Alex Kinninmonth is the Scottish Wildlife Trust's Living Seas Manager 


Banner image: © Paul Naylor

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In this week's 50 for the Future article, Alex Kinninmonth explains why well-managed marine protected areas are essential to the future health of our seas.  

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